AURORA | As he does six days a week, Tannen Hutton boarded the R Line train at East Iliff Avenue and headed south toward work Friday afternoon.
The new train has proved remarkably convenient for Hutton, who takes it in mid-afternoon from the Iliff Station down to his job at Park Meadows Mall, and back again late in the evening.
The train car Hutton rode in last week was far from full, with just about a dozen people riding. Hutton, 21, said that’s a common sight on his commute to work, which generally happens outside the peak times for the train. But the line is new, he said, and maybe hasn’t attracted overly impressive numbers of riders yet.
“People are riding it,” he said, as the seven-month old train glided over Interstate 225 in Aurora.
But the Regional Transportation District, which runs the line, doesn’t believe people are riding the train in portions of the route enough to warrant the service it currently provides. On the segment of the line that runs from the Iliff Station to the Lincoln station there are approximately 56.4 boardings per hour. On off-peak times that rate drops to just 33.8 boardings per hour.
That low ridership has RTD officials proposing cuts to the new R Line, cuts that riders like Hutton say would leave them scrambling for a solution — and which have irked Aurora officials.
RTD’s proposal, which could take effect in early 2018 if approved by the RTD baord, would mean the end of R Line service south of East Florida Avenue completely during off-peak times.
From about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends, riders looking to go from Aurora to Park Meadows mall or some other stop in the Denver Tech Center will have to use the H Line and transfer to another train at the Southmoor Station in southeast Denver, adding substantial time to their commute. R Line riders headed north will also have to use a different line and transfer to the H Line at Southmoor. Heading north, the H Line will turn into an R Line at the East Florida Avenue stop, and vice versa heading south.
Based on current schedules, that could tack on between 20 and 40 extra minutes to a one-way ride.
A public meeting to discuss the changes is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Aurora Municipal Center, 15151 E. Alameda Parkway.
RTD bases its routes on productivity, calculated by the number of boardings per hour. In the proposal, RTD said the 10 percent minimum for rail is 67.1 boardings per hour. The R Line averages 41 boardings per hour.
Convenience is the name of the game, said the former chairman of the RTD board, Tom Tobiassen, who is now a candidate for Aurora City Council. A longer commute time can turn riders off to the idea of catching a train instead of battling traffic, and fewer people opting into public transit ultimately means even fewer riders.
Along with riders like Hutton, Aurora leaders say they are miffed about the proposal. In a letter to RTD, signed by Mayor Steve Hogan, the city said a number of “business decisions and significant investments have been made based on the concept of a true regional transit system and the completion of the R Line.” Approximately 2,500 residential units near R Line stops are either in the process of or are slated to begin construction over the next 18 months, according to the city.
In addition to luring development along the line, the city has footed the bill for a lot of the infrastructure upgrades along the R Line, from drainage systems to sidewalks and $1 million in new fiber optic cable connections, according to the city’s planning and development services office. The city also paid for the $7.5 million parking garage at the Iliff Station.
The city’s letter to RTD also points out that the R Line is relatively young, and alleges that there wasn’t a marketing campaign robust enough to bolster ridership.
“The R Line needs one to two years of delivering service to the east and southeast metro communities before assessing performance using service standards and any consideration of service cuts,” the letter said. “It is simply too early to know what true ridership is until residential and other impacts are fully in place.”
Tina Jaquez, a spokeswoman for RTD, said it’s typical that RTD looks at ridership after a line has been operating for six months. She added that like all other lines, the R Line had a marketing plan when it opened.
Hogan said the city has asked RTD whether the proposed cuts are because of a budget problem. RTD affirms that it is not.
But if not, Hogan said he doesn’t understand why make such a reduction so soon, and why not communicate more with the municipalities the cuts will impact.
For most frequenters of the R Line, the proposed change isn’t expected to have much of an impact and the proposal will still make central Aurora accessible all day long.
Jaquez said the riders who will be effected most — meaning those who use the train at off-peak times to get between southern Aurora stations and stations along Interstate 25 near the tech center — make up a small percentage of ridership.
But for that small slice of the R Line ridership, people like Hutton, there will be a noticeable inconvenience.
Hopping on the train at County Line after his shift today would put Hutton back at the Iliff stop about 20 minutes later if he catches one of the every-15-minutes trains around 10:20 p.m., according to RTD’s schedule. If he hops the train on the way to work around 1:50 p.m., that ride also takes about 20 minutes.
For riders like Hutton who rely on light rail late at night, the R Line cuts and Southmoor transfer would make the commute somewhat longer.
The F Line from Lincoln Station to Downtown Denver doesn’t run late into the evening — the last train pulls out of Lincoln at 7:40 p.m. The E Line is an option, but it only runs about once an hour at that time, so if a rider like Hutton misses the 10:20 p.m. train, he is out of luck until 11:20 p.m.
If he gets that 10:20 p.m. train, he’d be at Southmoor around 10:35 p.m. From there he could snag the H Line at 10:42 p.m. and arrive at Iliff around 10:54 p.m.
In all, that commute home would take about 35 minutes if he catches all the trains he needs, compared to about 20 minutes today.
On the way to work, Hutton could catch a 1:30 p.m. train from Iliff and arrive at Southmoor around 1:40 p.m. From there, an E Line train could pick him up a little after 2 p.m. and drop him off at County Line at 2:15 p.m. If he catches a 1:48 train on the F Line, he’d pull up to County Line at 2 p.m. That means he is looking at either 30 minutes or 45 minutes of commute, compared to just 20 on the R Line today.
As he rode that R Line train last week, Hutton wasn’t thrilled about losing the convenient train ride he currently relies on. When asked what he would do if RTD went through with the changes, he looked around the brand new train and shook his head.
“I don’t even know,” he said.